Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Going Mormon

Posted By on Wed, Sep 26, 2012 at 9:41 AM

Going Mormon

If you’ve ever wondered how a child of easygoing liberal intellectuals can rebel, let me explain it step by step:

Step 1: Convert to Mormonism.

There. That’s it.

I speak from experience, see. At the age of 16, I shocked my parents, friends, and Lutheran youth group by throwing in with my local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. At the time, my older sister was away at college, my dad had a job 2,000 miles from home, and my mom and I were both working as much as possible to keep us afloat. Looking back, it’s pretty easy for me to understand how I was drawn to Mormonism’s aggressively familial environment. The members were really nice, the community was protective, and the desserts were fantastic.

For a young adult as preternaturally risk-averse as I was, the restrictions of the religion didn’t bring me down. The only thing I found distressing, really, was how much the church distressed everyone else. I was told, repeatedly and earnestly, that Mormons weren’t “real” Christians. I was presented with anti-LDS literature and films. I was taken aside by a friend for a heart-to-heart chat discouraging my conversion. At prom.

The most dogmatic of my acquaintances informed me, sadly but sincerely, that I was following a false prophet and, unfortunately, would go to hell for it. All I could think to do was thank them for their concern and let them know that, personally, I thought their path was just fine and we’d all be okay. It never left my awareness, though, that a large group of people – possibly a majority – was actively and adamantly against me because of my faith. And that sucked.

My time in the LDS church pre-dated September 11, 2001, so I can’t speak for whether the increasing cultural awareness of Muslims, a group even further outside the sphere of Typical American Christian, has lessened animosity toward Mormons. Based on the fact that two GOP presidential hopefuls, including the official Republican nominee, are LDS, however, it seems that enough people have set aside old biases and united behind new ones. The fear of the foreign, the unfamiliar, the misunderstood – these are still present and driving factors, but are now directed toward an “other” more easily identified. Over the last two weeks, fearful rhetoric has dominated discussion of Islam, and the most prominent Mormon in America (sorry, Osmonds) has fanned those flames. It’s hard for me to understand how anyone steeped in generations of LDS history, which is not free from its own violent and shameful chapters, could be dismissive of the idiosyncrasies and sensitivities of other faiths, or ignore the way small groups of fundamentalist outliers can ruin things for everyone.

After recently spending a week in Qatar, my friend Carma received an email from a medical resident she had worked with there. In it, he apologized on behalf of all Muslims for what had occurred at the American consulate in Libya, explained how the attack violated the basic principles of Islam, and stated that he and many other Muslims had sent apologies directly to the family of Ambassador Christopher Stevens. “I know you are not one of his family members,” he wrote, “but I made a commitment between me and myself to apologize [to] every single American whenever I get a chance to do that for that ignorant action.” This physician had no more a role in the consulate attack than my grandmother had in producing the film that sparked that day’s protests, but his faith moved him to action, to reconciliation, to peace.

I was officially baptized into the LDS church when I was 19. After becoming more aware and less comfortable with its doctrine, I left the fold three years later. I won’t claim that six years made me an expert on the practice or experience of being Mormon, but it did give me a peek at being a beleaguered religious minority. Reading the doctor’s email, I was reminded of all those times I felt I needed to explain or apologize for my beliefs, as well as the times I resisted the urge to say, “But you know, your stuff sounds kind of silly, too.”

Because taken at face value, it does seem silly, all of it, whatever beliefs we hold onto so tightly they make us dismiss common sense or the laws of nature, whether they’re simple superstitions or complex catechism. That silliness can go terribly, horribly wrong, or it can inspire amazing acts of kindness and compassion. Our country’s founders seemed to feel that, left to our own devices, we’d lean more toward the latter. Condemning insults and attacks against any faith isn’t apologizing for our values; it’s living up to them.

Oh, hey, would you look at that. I turned into my parents after all.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

No Boys Allowed

Posted By on Wed, Sep 19, 2012 at 7:14 AM

Our tent was up, the bedrolls were unrolled (okay, inflated), and the canvas chairs were arranged in a welcoming semi-circle. All across the mowed field serving as our campground, dozens of other women and girls were making the same preparations at their own sites. This overnight under the stars was a special reward for Girls Scouts who’d pre-registered for their annual membership, and the bustling female throng was filled with the energy of those who get things done early (as well as those who, like me, were lucky to have troop leaders who kept on top of such things).

And then I saw them, just a few yards away.



A man and a boy, really; probably a father and son. Okay, I thought, maybe they’re just dropping some girls off. But then they started unpacking their car and … wait, no. Really? They’re setting up a tent? By themselves? Not a girl in sight! The pastoral soundtrack playing in my head came to a needle-scratching halt.

Despite my initial unease, I tried not to judge. After all, the camp-out began at 5:00 on a Friday evening, with groups coming from as far away as Hernando, MS. Maybe that troop hadn’t been able to get enough female chaperones together, or some of the moms were held up at work. Surely they’d be coming along soon to help and … wait, no. Is that that boy’s mother? Standing over there with ear buds in? Oh hell no. Judging on.

I wasn’t sure who else noticed. I didn’t mention it to anyone, out of respect for our sense of community. I just silently hoped that the girls wouldn’t look over and wonder why males were not only in their midst, but taking on the bulk of one group’s work.

The unexpected guests left my mind as our girls gathered with troops from all over the area to spend the evening picnicking, singing songs, roasting marshmallows, and hunting spiders. It was a decidedly girlish night, for better (intricate rituals, unfettered energy) and worse (so. much. shrieking). The next day, we rallied after a brief night’s sleep with plans to try canoeing and archery. I saw the father and son in line for life jackets and tried to appreciate the fact that they were involved so positively in their daughter’s/sister’s life, and even let myself consider that these two weren’t crashers so much as game-changers, leading the charge toward a more balanced society.

This open-minded attitude lasted about thirty minutes. By then, my daughter and her friends were waiting their turn at the archery targets when I noticed the young man milling about. A girl of about 12 was talking to her troop about their plans to leave. “Packing up will be easy because we have a man to help us,” she said, leaning coyly against the boy. I felt like one of the arrows had flown astray and hit me in the gut. In that one moment was every reason that this should have been a girls-only trip. Not only did that camper instantly switch into flirt mode, which was a creepy thing to see in such an adamantly platonic setting, but worse, she threw her own abilities aside as secondary because she was “just a girl.”

Look, we had a good trip. The girls had a blast and the adults got to enjoy seeing them thrive in an unfamiliar environment. The presence of a couple Y chromosomes didn’t change that. It did, however, highlight the importance of why we were there in the first place. The entire point of Girl Scouts is to teach that there is no “just” before a girl. The organization’s mission is to “build girls of courage, confidence, and character.” Promoting self-sufficiency is a critical part of that mission. It would be nice if it weren’t this way, but until we’ve reached a time when gender equality is a reality, we have to make a specific effort to counter-act the biases toward male ability. Taking girls into suburban hayfields so they can set up their own tents (or at least see that their moms can set up tents) is a small but worthwhile endeavor toward that goal. Dads, brothers, uncles, cousins, papaws, stepfathers and friends all play vital roles in girls’ lives, but if they truly want to raise women who will be leaders of their own generation, sometimes the best step they can take is to just get out of the way.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

"A Very Special Episode of ... "

Posted By on Tue, Sep 11, 2012 at 9:44 PM

The fall TV season, with all its color and splendor and ill-conceived new premises, is descending upon us. Unfortunately, I’ll be missing out on most of it, with only a few furtively DVR-ed programs caught before bedtime.

And for this, I blame Dan Schneider, White Station High School class of ‘82.

Dan did this. Maybe not all by himself, but he is a big part of the reason I can’t watch TV with my kids. And as an American, I resent having this precious TV-watching time taken away from me.


Don’t look at me like that. He knows what he did. By producing shows like Drake and Josh and iCarly, Schneider nourished the cable-for-kids phenomenon until it became an amorphous blob of blindingly-colored sets, parentless pre-teens, and merchandisable wardrobes that are all but unwatchable to anyone with a driver’s license. If you think I’m overstating his influence, please note that he was called “the Norman Lear of children's television” in the dang New York Times. Schneider has made a nice profit on the theory that kids' programming should be relentlessly positive and unchallenging, and while that’s not so bad in a 30-minute segment or two, he and his ilk have now taken over multiple outlets, providing non-stop shows for the 6-to-12 set that are virtually indistinguishable from the Kidz Bop CD commercials littered in between.   

If it were only a few cable channels that were affected, I might be able to live with this shift. But now, thanks to the idea Schneider has promulgated that kids’ TV is an entirely separate entity, the rest of television has gone in a decidedly child-unfriendly direction. There’s really no safe zone in the evening line-up anymore. Even if I turn on something as relatively benign as Modern Family, one of the few "domestic" comedies in prime-time, there’s still a good shot I’ll be awkwardly hoping my kids don’t catch the sub-plot about a father’s panic that his daughter’s lost her virginity.

“The following program contains subject matter that may be inappropriate for some viewers. Parental discretion advised.”

If you see these words on your television today, you instantly scan the room to make sure no one under the age of 13 is about to see what’s coming, because there’s a good chance it’s a home video of a crossbow accident or a T-and-A-enhanced love scene or Louis C.K. talking about … well, anything. The standard of appropriateness has been dropped so low that if something is under it, you certainly don’t want kids crawling around down there.

But back in the innocent 1980s, a parental warning meant that this was A Very Special Episode of a normally family-friendly show, one that would spark conversation with an uncharacteristically heavy theme. In this way, everything from drug use to child abuse was broached in what were, I admit, somewhat simplistic and candy-coated ways (oh, alcoholic-uncle Tom Hanks, put down the vanilla extract!), but to a kid at the time, still came through as powerful. Just say “Dudley in the basement” to a Gen X-er and you’ll witness an involuntary shudder.  

Maybe there’d even be an episode about losing one’s virginity (such as, say, the ninth season Facts of Life episode called “Natalie,” which my mental-YouTube called up without a glitch), but by handling the topic with a little gravity, young viewers were made to understand that this was an Issue, not a punchline. And it wasn’t just sit-coms crossing these lines. I swear to you that I learned about sex because I came to my mom with questions after watching an episode of Fat Albert about STDs.

I know, I know. Kids are more worldly than ever before, but I still think they deserve to be eased into some topics. The complete dichotomy between the squeaky-clean worlds of tween fantasy and the overtly adult content of mainstream networks is jarring. The irony is that Dan Schneider’s career started on a show like Head of the Class, one of the last youth-ensemble sit-coms that wasn’t intended for a youth-only audience, one where the lead adult was a fully-formed character and not just a blundering comic foil. A show about gifted kids who saw both sides of the “being different” coin, not just the one with EVERYBODY LOOK AT ME AND MY FABULOUS HAIR engraved on it.

Being a kid isn’t easy. It’s weird and confusing. Television should be an escape, of course, but it has the potential to be a guide, too. Not just for kids, but for adults trying to figure out how to have some of those hard conversations. Or, in some cases, any conversations at all. Kid-friendly TV shouldn’t replace parents, so it sure would be nice if it didn’t repel them from the room, either.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Manassas 10

Posted By on Wed, Sep 5, 2012 at 8:04 AM

My people aren’t much for overarching advice or general proclamations, but my father has a saying that has always stuck with me: “People live down to your expectations.”

Perhaps that sounds a bit negative, and for my optimistic dad it borders on gloomy, but the point is valid: Set the bar really high, because even the most well-intentioned will usually do the least that’s required of them. It’s just how we work.

I thought of this advice when I heard about Manassas High School’s new graduation policy, which seems at first glance to be beyond lofty and approaching ludicrous. As reported by the Commercial Appeal, Principal James Griffin has decreed that all seniors must have 10 college acceptance letters as a condition to graduate. Not send in 10 applications, not visit 10 campuses — acceptance at 10 institutions of higher learning is required for a high school diploma. Whether this is an enforceable policy or just a well-publicized benchmark is somewhat unclear, but either way, these students have been given a set of expectations above even their highest achieving and most privileged peers. Especially considering Manassas’ tandem goal of a 100 percent graduation rate.


Manassas High School is best known for its football team, honored in the 2011 Oscar-winning documentary Undefeated. Their story is inspirational, and I’m sure the morale it infused into this small, struggling school was immeasurable, but as a former Mathlete, I’m much more moved by a principal and faculty committed to every student than a coach and community focused on just a few.

But I have to admit, my initial response to the new requirement was, “Heck, I didn’t get into 10 colleges.” But then again, no one expected me to. I didn’t even mail 10 applications. Part of the reason for that was the cost of applying — somewhere between $25 and $60 a pop, if I recall correctly, and it looks like about 25 percent higher now. It also took a lot of time, considering that no two applications seemed to have the same essay prompts and it was hard to fit in the extra homework. I was already taking a rigorous schedule of classes that were specifically designed to get me into college and working a part-time job that I hoped would help pay for it. Even as a suburban kid in a middle-weight recession, I would have found 10 acceptance letters to be an overwhelming demand.  

And that’s where Manassas is doing it right. They have allotted school time for students to work on applications, and they’ve made deals with a growing number of colleges and universities to waive application fees for students demonstrating need. They’re not only setting high expectations over there, they’re eliminating excuses. And when you’re dealing with hundreds of teenagers, that’s a critical first step.    

You may wonder what’s being pushed off the plate to allow for this academic sideline, but the odds are, probably nothing. With high schools making the graduation rate-inducing shift toward seven different class periods each semester but fewer staff available to teach electives, many Memphis seniors find themselves out of classes by their final year and end up shuffled into study halls or working as teachers’ assistants to fill the time. The Manassas model of using a class period for college preparation is therefore double-genius. It not only fills a slot in their schedules, it also gives students significant time and support to work toward this goal.

Will every senior make this target? Maybe not. I can’t imagine that in any group of 120 12th graders, there aren’t at least a few who lack either the ability or the give-a-damn to do so. But among the class as a whole, what amazing things will happen to those who are stretching themselves so far past what anyone had previously asked of them? What scholarships will be presented, what mentors will be discovered, what doors will open wider?

Maybe I’m not convinced all of those Manassas seniors will get into 10 colleges each. But I’m sure going to expect them to.

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